- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 24, 2005

By Lewis L. Gould

Basic Books, $27.50, 402 pages

REVIEWED BY CLAUDE R. MARX

The Senate is often described as the “world’s greatest deliberative body.’ In recent years, however, the chamber has not always lived up to that reputation. Most of the recent books on the subject have been either self-serving memoirs by senators or scholarly works that will generate little interest from the general public. Fortunately, University of Texas historian Lewis L. Gould has filled the vacuum effectively.

“The Most Exclusive Club” is a readable and insightful history of the Senate since 1900. It highlights the salient personalities and issues in a manner that will appeal to general readers and political junkies alike. Though many of the subjects have been dealt with in greater detail (and in some cases more elegantly) elsewhere, Mr. Gould’s book presents an effective synthesis.

It also reminds people that many of the current problems that mar the relations between Congress and the White House are not particularly new or unusual. When senators complain that President Bush withheld intelligence data before the war in Iraq, it is the continuation of an argument between the executive and legislative branches that has gone on since the nation’s founding.

Mr. Gould reexamines one of the best known foreign policy disputes: the Senate’s failure to ratify the Treaty of Versailles that ended World War I. He revisits that event and lays blame for the treaty’s defeat at the feet of then-President Wilson who often treated lawmakers with contempt. “The president simply thought that the merits of his arguments were self-evident and would carry the day, and he did not take the time to explain his case to members individually,’ Mr. Gould writes.

Though almost all of the chamber’s Republicans, such as Majority Leader Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts, disliked Mr. Wilson and his policies, many Democrats were not inclined to give the president the benefit of the doubt either. Ironically, given that Mr. Wilson had written a scholarly book about Congress, he did not show the legislative branch much respect and paid dearly for it. While the League of Nations seemed valuable on paper, the points raised by the senators about American autonomy were important. The Senate’s refusal to ratify treaty was not, as Mr. Gould concludes, evidence that during that time the chamber “acted as a brake on progress.’

Mr. Gould’s verdict on the Senate’s performance during other periods of the last 100 years is not much more favorable. He justifiably criticizes lawmakers for dragging their feet about condemning Sen. Joseph McCarthy, R-Wis., for his red-baiting tactics and his damage to the reputation of many innocent people.

The book’s accounts of these and other events touch on all the key points but are marred by the turgid writing style. You will learn a great deal, but you will not stay at the edge of your seat while doing so. Nobody will confuse this book with the masterful accounts of the subject by Robert Caro and Robert Dallek.

Mr. Gould also chastises senators for keeping colleagues with racist views in powerful positions where they could obstruct the passage of civil rights legislation. Eventually, however, senators — after being prompted in part by Lyndon Johnson during his stints as majority leader and as president — changed their views and went on to work in a bipartisan fashion to pass major civil rights legislation. The author describes the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as having “represented one of the constructive moments in the Senate’s long history.’

Mr. Gould has a more mixed evaluation of Mr. Johnson. While praising the former majority leader for pushing through a range of progressive legislation, he faults him for not having changed the long term character of the Senate. “He seemed a towering figure at the time, but his essential lack of vision about the Senate limited his impact,’ the author writes of Mr. Johnson.

That’s an unduly harsh assessment. Mr. Johnson did the best he could given the nation’s political mood and the reluctance of senators to make significant changes in how the Senate operates. Mr. Gould’s account of more recent history is fairly conventional. He bemoans the lack of civility and the increased partisanship but offers few insights not previously found in newspapers.

Despite these flaws, “The Most Exclusive Club” is an interesting and informative book. People looking for a balanced assessment of recent congressional history will find that reading this volume will be time well spent.

Claude R. Marx writes a political column for The Eagle-Tribune in North Andover, Mass. He wrote a chapter on Howard Dean’s presidential candidacy in the recently-published book: “Divided States of America: The Slash and Burn Politics of the 2004 Presidential Election.’

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